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Cruiser reveals top tips for sailing as a disabled traveller from cabins to excursions

Author: Michele Monro

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Living with a disability presents a lot of obstacles, but a cruise doesn’t have to be one of them. A cruiser with MS has revealed her top tips.

I have cruised for more than forty years: twenty-five years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, after which I began to notice obstacles that I hadn’t encountered before but with a little forethought cruising is still my first choice for a stress-free holiday.

How to plan a cruise holiday with a disability

Research is key, but information on accessibility is hard to find and the internet is filled with dead sites - with no one policing the web pages, you can source information only to find it’s out-of-date and has been for some time.

One woman planned a dream trip to Venice as a surprise for her husband, a permanent wheelchair user. She set off, husband in tow, thinking she had planned the perfect trip. Sadly, when they arrived, she found several bridge lifts had been dismantled two years earlier, leaving the couple unable to access the city’s key areas.

Research Tip: Don’t rely on just one website for information especially if it is something key to your trip. Google lots of different articles, read the disabled cruise travel boards or ring a specialised travel agent for advice.

When planning a cruise, the most important consideration is ship choice, especially for those that are permanent wheelchair users. The larger ships tend to have wider gangways and some like AIDA have a rollator that enables easy access. That might seem obvious but I saw one poor couple left behind at Rosyth as they couldn’t navigate the wheelchair up the stepped narrow gangway.

If you feel tethered to a kidney machine for treatment, bear in mind that Dialysis at Sea have several sailing a year but your booking needs to be made directly through the company rather than through the cruise line.

Top Tip: River and expedition cruises are not best suited for wheelchair users.

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How to choose a disabled cabin

Choosing the right cabin is imperative, preferably one that has electronic doors, 360-degree turning angles, ramped access to the bathroom, roll-in showers with fold down benches, handheld showerheads, bathroom grab bars, alarm buttons, lower wardrobe rails and you will need the ship to incorporate the latest visual/tactile technology if you have hearing or sight limitations.

Because of health and safety, wheelchairs are not allowed to be left in the corridors. If you haven’t booked an appropriate cabin for your equipment, it will be refused on embarkation. If you book a balcony ensure it is large enough for you and your mobility aid as some quite literally have space for two chairs and little else and if using a wheelchair, you will need ramped access.

- READ MORE: Disabled cruises from Southampton -

Accessible cabins or specialised booking agents do not cost any more money but neither are discounts offered for disabled travellers. American Cruise lines have to conform to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) so can be well suited for those with special needs.

Top Tip: Wheelchair-accessible cabins are limited so book well in advance especially if wanting to travel over half-term or holiday periods.

Upgrade Offers: When booking an accessible cabin, you may be asked if you will accept a free upgrade if one becomes available. Do NOT accept as you might then be allocated a non-accessible cabin.

Wheelchair-accessible cabins are limited. Credit: Mobility At Sea

What services do cruise lines offer disabled passengers?

Some lines like Celebrity, AIDA, and Royal Caribbean offer braille signage in lifts, corridors and stairwell handrails, automatic deck doors, accessible restrooms, assistive listening devices in theatres, designated theatre and restaurant seating for wheelchair users, and lower gaming tables in the casino.

The restaurants accommodate guide dogs, cater for special dietary needs, and braille menus are available upon request. Quite a few ships now incorporate swimming pools and whirlpool hoists but times are only available upon request.

Top tips for booking a cruise as a disabled passenger

If you are booking a fly-cruise, make sure you request a bulkhead seat and take a spare carry-on bag to store any removable parts of your wheelchair like footrests, joystick, headrest or battery and make sure you have disconnected the cells. The less equipment that goes in the hold the less likely it is to get damaged.

Make sure to laminate instructions on how to operate your device and ensure it is secured to your chair. Take a photograph of your equipment before leaving home to prove any damage incurred is of the airline’s making and file a report as soon as you disembark. Legally the airline is required to fix your chair or offer a replacement but unfortunately, it may not match the standards of your own chair.

Airline Tip: If you have booked your air tickets on a third-party site like Expedia, they might not offer an option to select assistance. Make sure you contact the airline to request this.

Service Animals: All airlines and cruise ships are required to allow guide dogs to travel with you free of charge. Make sure you carry the required paperwork and contact the airline and cruise company to inform them you are travelling with your sightseeing friend so they can be prepared for your arrival.

Once you are ready to book, contact the cruise line’s Special Needs Department for special requests, pier assistance and accessible tour excursions advice. Most British embarkation ports are geared toward passengers with special needs and even if you are not travelling with a wheelchair, you can still book wheelchair assistance through your selected cruise line to make boarding easier.

How do cruise ports cater for disabled travellers?

The mainstream ports such as Southampton, Newcastle, Dover, or Liverpool have terminals that are fully accessible and have excellent pre-boarding facilities, ramps or lifts and accessible bathrooms.

Solo Travellers: If your disability enables you to be fully automated you are allowed to travel as a solo cruiser but for those that need help with dressing, drug administration, or mobility assistance, you will need to travel with an able-bodied companion.

You don’t have to lug all your equipment with you. Companies like ‘Mobility at Sea’, ‘Special Needs at Sea’ or ‘Scootaround’ will take care of everything, whether oxygen, bed hoist, raised toilet seat, powerchair, scooter or walker, the leaders in worldwide mobility rental devices will make sure you have everything you need waiting in your cabin on arrival.

Insurance Tip: Remember to take out equipment insurance, as a replacement or repair could be costly.

- READ MORE: How Mobility at Sea is changing cruise travel for those with disabilities -

If you are carrying your own equipment, make sure it is well-labelled to avoid confusion of ownership. Ask for an orientation tour once embarked and make a note of where the accessible restrooms are located, where your dinner table is, and where the reserved theatre seating is located.

Some ports have extremely long piers or ship-to-shore walkways which can tire out the fittest of the fit and although a powerchair gives you the freedom to get off without worrying whether you will be able to cope with the distance, it is easy to underestimate the battery usage so make sure it is fully charged before leaving the ship.

Make sure your electrical mobility aids are compatible with the voltage on the ship and that you pack a 2 or 4 gang extension lead as most cabins only have one plug socket. Always take copies of your prescription medication with you and carry extra in case of delays. It is prudent to ask your doctor for the generic names as certain overseas pharmacies might not recognise your medicine.

Wheelchair Repair Kit Tip: Always carry an emergency repair kit, spare inner tubes, tyre repair patches, a Phillips screwdriver, hex wrench, or air pump could come in handy.

Mainstream ports such as Southampton have terminals that are fully accessible. Credit: Shutterstock

How to choose a cruise destination if you have a disability

Select your destinations carefully and avoid tender ports whenever possible as most would-be passengers don’t realise that if you are a permanent wheelchair user you cannot get off the ship if you have to tender ashore (tending is used when the ship anchors at sea and small boats ferry passengers across).

There are a few exceptions where state of the art multi-million-pound new builds have incorporated equipment that enables a wheelchair user to use the tender, notably Celebrity’s ‘Magic Carpet’ on Edge and Apex. Princess Cruises have an accessible tender on some of their ships and Holland America’s scissor lift transports a wheelchair user down the gangway and onto the tender.

Once dockside, the tender uses a hydraulic levelling system to adjust to the height between the dock and the tender allowing the wheelchair to be rolled off safely.

Equipment Tip: Bear in mind that most cruise lines have a weight restriction on chairs that want to use the tender service.

One of the dozens of challenging ports is Copenhagen’s Langelinie quay, one of three cruise terminals servicing the city. It is fabulously placed for tourists, with many key sights reachable by foot, including The Little Mermaid statue.

A hop-on-hop-off bus stops across the road from the port exit, as do the cruise lines’ shuttle buses, tour excursion coaches and taxis: it’s an incredibly busy street, running more than half a mile. Upon exiting the cruise berth’s wire-fenced compound you are forced to cross the street as only one side has a pavement; the problem is that there isn’t one dropped kerb along the entire stretch of road, despite cruise companies complaining to the port authorities for several years.

If you are travelling in a manual chair, it isn’t too difficult if you are being pushed, as the chair can simply be tilted to mount the pavement, but electric wheelchairs and scooters don’t have that option. The result is often defiant tourists braving the two-way traffic and dodging the port delivery trucks, fuel tankers and tour buses that use the road - it is incredibly dangerous and an accident waiting to happen. Ignorance isn’t bliss, it is unacceptable.

Cruise lines such as NCL, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Celebrity visit Norway and Alaska and they are absolutely stunning but can be somewhat cold depending on the time of year you cruise there. The weather can be totally unpredictable and can change by the hour and even in the warmer months, it can still be very cold early morning and early evening so what you pack is crucial.

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How to pack for a cruise as a disabled travellers

Start with a thermal layer, then add your insulating layer (shirts, trousers, sweaters, fleeces etc) and finish with a lightweight waterproof jacket, a good hat that also covers your ears, scarf and gloves. Invest in a good pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes because UV rays bounce off ice and snow. Layering is important, so use more to protect against the cold and remove some when the climate is more comfortable.

If you are living with diabetes, make sure you don’t wear tight or ill-fitting boots or shoes when walking as that is one of the main reasons blisters can occur. Diabetes often causes poor blood circulation and loss of sensation in the legs making it likely that you won’t realise a blister even exists.

- READ MORE: Cruises for singles over 60: Best cruise lines for solo travel -

Invest in high-quality wool socks and make sure your feet are dry because foot moisture and humidity can also be the cause of blisters. Do not perforate the fluid sac and cover it with a plaster as not only does it keep the area free of dirt and bacteria but also provides pain relief. If left untreated a blister can become infected.

Footwear Advice: Ensure you have waterproof footwear and if you buy new walking shoes or boots for your trip, make sure you break them in before you travel.

Snow Advice: If booked to a cold-winter destination like Alaska or Norway, take wheelchair snow tyres that will make traversing the pavements much easier when in port. Carry a poncho or similar to cover your wheelchair battery to keep it dry.

Layering is important, so use more to protect against the cold or less if it's hot. Credit: Shutterstock

Top tips for cruise excursions as a disabled traveller

One area that ships are lacking in is the number of accessible tours on offer in ports of call. Some lines have a good selection like Celebrity whose coaches have lift access, MSC cover 20 destinations, while Silversea actually partners with Accessible Travel Solutions who specialise in land-based excursions for those with special needs.

Google search external shore excursions, several local companies have great options. Sage Traveling, owned and run by John Sage a wheelchair user himself, knows first-hand what needs to be included in a wheelchair-friendly port outing.

Be Careful: Even if a ship’s excursion is billed as wheelchair-friendly, in some cases they will store your chair in the hold but expect you to be able to manage the bus/coach steps on your own!

Some of the cruise line’s private islands have accessible landing quays, beach wheelchairs and adapted bathroom facilities. In fact, overall cruising has become very accessible friendly and you will have a marvellous time if you do your research and select the ship and ports of call that suits your special needs best.

One area ships are lacking in is the number of accessible tours on offer in ports of call. Credit: Shutterstock

Where to find cruise advice as a cruise passenger

I decided to address all of these issues with a book dedicated to disabled people who want to cruise on their own terms. A market first, ‘The Autonomous Cruiser: The Complete Guide To Cruising For and With Disabled Travellers’, took a number of years to write and includes Brexit and Covid information.

It covers the most common areas of special needs - from those travelling with pre-existing conditions, special dietary considerations, prescriptions and medication, epilepsy, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities, compromised immune systems, breathing disorders, kidney disease, and visual and hearing impairments to make this the most comprehensive guide to cruising available.

The book advises on the whole process of cruising and includes ship and port choices, cruise terminal accessibility, a comprehensive section on fly-cruises including airport guides, car park assistance, wheelchair advice, checked luggage, and delayed and missed departures.

- READ MORE: Top tips for cruising alone from romance to safety -

It focuses on critical pre-planning including holiday administration, vaccinations, medication, cabin selection, upgrades, pier transfers, luggage services, and online check-in. ‘Life on board’ incorporates embarkation, dining, entertainment, swimming pools, spa facilities shopping and duty-free, onboard savings, port calls, tendering, and the travel scams to watch out for.

There is a section for caregivers, chaperones and service dogs and most importantly a directory outlining essential disability resources, including accessible shore excursions, dedicated apps, cruise specialists and accessible travel agents.

The Autonomous Cruiser is now out in paperback and eBook, and available on Amazon.

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